BOE holds off proposal to close schools

Eatonton resident Helen Ingram, standing, addresses the board of education from her place in the crowd.

After two discussions with various residents during public hearings, the Putnam County Board of Education has taken its proposal off the table to close two schools and combine them into a newly-built single facility.

“After two meetings, it is clear that there is insufficient public support to go on with closing the schools and constructing a new one,” BOE Chairman Dr. Steve Weiner said at the end of the BOE’s regular meeting Monday night.

The board announced approximately a month ago that it was considering closing the Putnam County middle and elementary school facilities, and build a new building that would house fourth through eighth grades.

Approximately 70 people attended a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 16 with about 16 of them speaking to the BOE; and about another 35-40 were there Monday night.

As they had done at the first meeting, Dr. Weiner began Tuesday night by explaining how they “got to this spot.” Referring to the housing bubble when home sales and ownership was at an all-time high, Weiner explained that the Putnam County Board of Commissioners approved 10,000 new housing permits. Anticipating an enrollment growth of 7,000 students, the BOE members of that time bought two properties – on Pea Ridge Road and U.S. 441 near Rock Eagle – to build additional K-12 schools. Weiner was not on the board at that time, he said.

The construction of the new high school, built in 2009 according to the presentation at the hearing, was funded with the sale of bonds, which were to be paid back in a relatively short period of time using funds from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which at that time amounted to $250,000 a month from coal purchased by Georgia Power at Plant Branch.

With the crash of the housing boom and the closing of Plant Branch a few years later, the BOE had to pay the bonds off using general funds, which meant cuts had to be made in other areas, but the quality of education was not affected, Weiner said.

The state requires the current PCMS (which is 42 years old) and PCES (parts are 21 to 65+ years old) be either renovated or closed.

The board asked Superintendent Eric Arena to do a feasibility study on whether closing/rebuilding or renovating was better. Using estimates, Arena later reported to them that a new facility would cost the system $23,800,000 to build (it has not been designed, so that was an estimate), and it would be $13,512,000 to renovate the two old ones. Board members decided it was not frugal to spend $13 million on 20- to 60-year-old old buildings.

During the two hearings, they addressed parents’ concerns of combining fourth through eighth grades in one facility, and the lack of knowledge on where that facility would be, which would affect the cost and inevitable tax increase.

At Monday’s meeting, Billy Webster said he was concerned because he did not know what the millage rate was going to be with one option (closing/rebuilding) versus the other (renovating).

Dr. Steve Hersey, who was the BOE chairman before Weiner and currently is the BOC chairman, reminded the board members that 15 years ago, the public trust in the board of education was extremely low. He said he was concerned that their proposal without giving details of the facility or funding would destroy the trust the board had worked so hard to regain.

Walt Rocker III said he worried closing the two schools would put Eatonton in a position with more blight and told how Savannah had educational buildings that were historical, yet still in use.

Other residents expressed concern over a millage rate increase, and discussion ensued on comparing Putnam’s with other counties, and an explanation of the Fair Share Education Act, which basically requires counties with a higher tax base to give a percentage of that tax to other counties, according to Weiner. He said more than 5 percent of Putnam’s school millage rate is distributed by the state to other school systems.

Weiner also noted that with 85 percent of the school system’s budget going to personnel salaries and benefits, “raising the millage rate is independent of what we are doing here regarding construction projects and bond payments.” He also pointed out that the millage rate had not been raised in five years.

“We know we’re going to have to raise the mil rate this coming year; but the question is, what can we do to minimize that?” he said.

When Tom Thompson repeated his question from the previous hearing, wondering if the county had sewerage capacity to combine two schools into one, Hersey, who also is chairman of the water and sewer authority, requested the privilege of answering. He first said that the capacity of both the eastside plant and westside plant were being improved, using grant funds.

“Consolidating fourth through eight grades into one building isn’t going to reduce the number of flushes of the toilets,” he added.

In the end, several of the board members said they preferred to table the decision until more research could be done.

Rev. Simone Jones, who represents District 2, thanked everyone for coming out and thanked Arena for his work and presentation. She said the superintendent was “moving off of guided direction” with his recommendation to close the schools and was bearing the brunt of the complaints, but she did not feel comfortable moving on with “so many unknowns.” She also said she was against building a facility on Pea Ridge Road.

“I really appreciate the citizens that came to the hearings and expressed their concerns,” District 1 representative Doris Clemons said afterwards. “As a board, we want to be as transparent as we legally can to the taxpayers of our community. Yes, there are still numerous unanswered questions and until we get those answers, I for one, cannot move forward with the decision that was on the table. We, the BOE, want to retain the trust we’ve earned from our community as being good stewards. However, we will have to make some necessary changes in the very near future in order to save local tax dollars in the long term.”

By Lynn Hobbs

lynn@msgr.com

 

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